Lisa Nigro sits down for a bite to eat at the café she created to provide job training for people trying to turn their lives around from homelessness and addiction. Photo by Nick Kittner.

Lisa Nigro thought her goal in life was to protect the community. She enlisted in the police academy and became a Chicago Police officer. But on the job, she kept getting labeled by her colleagues as the “social worker.” Whenever families decided not to file a report on a domestic squabble or other incident, Nigro couldn’t just walk away. She let people know what community services were available to help them.

After three years, Nigro left the police force and started the Inspiration Corp., a nonprofit agency that provides services and training for people who are homeless, formerly incarcerated, or have tested positive for HIV or AIDS. The agency has helped thousands through initiatives designed to create confidence and a sense of well-being so individuals can provide for their families, she said.

Along with providing workforce training, yoga and programs geared toward self-improvement, Inspiration Corp. operates two cafés. One, Inspiration Café, provides restaurant-style meals to people who are homeless, while the second, Café Too, is open to the public and serves as a culinary training facility, offering a 13-week training program. Each worker takes a basic aptitude test to qualify for the training. Once they pass, they are employed in the restaurant as cooks and servers. Students also get help building their resumes.

Nigro said she was drawn to help the homeless based on the social and racial biases she witnessed when she was growing up and on the police force. She decided that she wanted to create an environment that focused on changing the stereotypes produced in a society where the rich were respected and the poor were scorned.

“I wanted to create a space where it didn’t matter if you were a lawyer, a battered woman, a senior citizen or someone who had AIDS,” Nigro said. “We all have a common ground and when you go into Inspiration, all of those labels melt away.”

Through volunteering at shelters, Nigro realized that the homeless had few choices when it came to what they ate.

Borrowing her nephew’s red Radio Flyer wagon, she began making homemade sandwiches and coffee to give to the homeless in Uptown. Friends Vicki Dalicandro, Esther Hall, Vanessa Rich and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accompanied her. The group became popular. “People would come up to me and say, –˜Wow, what do I have to do to get this?’ And I would tell them, –˜Nothing.'” Nigro began making dishes such as eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce, omelets and French toast, serving each item on plates that she would later take home and wash. The red wagon evolved in 1991 into the café, located at 4554 N. Broadway St.

People who work at the café have benefited from it. Harry Rogers coordinated the volunteers at the café after battling an alcohol and cocaine addiction and hustling for 40 years. “I had accidentally labeled him as a con man who would never change,” Nigro said. “Harry is so special because he taught me about how people can change. He taught me how in order to make a difference in your own life one has to choose a better life.”

In 1998, Nigro and Rogers traveled to Moscow, where they opened another Inspiration Café. “I’d never had a real job in my entire life, and at the café I got to meet people that otherwise I would never have met,” said Rogers, 73. “The café had a great plan not only to feed you, but to treat you with dignity and respect.”

The Chicago Reporter recently sat down with Nigro to talk about her work.

Why was it so important to you to start the café?

For me the café took over my being. I don’t think I could have not done the café. I reflect on that time and wonder what I wanted to do, but really it was so simple. I just wanted to create a place that was an equal playing field for anyone who sat in the chairs at the café. I wanted to serve individuals who were being underserved or lost. So homeless guests didn’t have to be the only people who benefited from the hospitality that the café served. It was more important to me that individuals who were servers and who had all the advantages in life could actually find a commonality with the people who were guests. That is what happened and still happens to this day. Once you find a common bond in your humanity you start to see the less fortunate as people, not “them” or “those” people. They are you and me.

It has brought neighbors together and businesses together and gave the community a clean, safe place for the homeless to be. When the homeless feel safe, the community feels safe because people are not living out of a place of fear.

The restaurant, Café Too, has brought awareness to the café and its programs. This also reduces fear of the unknown. So as individuals dine at the café and have good food in a good atmosphere, it instills a venue for conversation about many topics.

Why do you believe it’s important for people to receive workforce training?

I believe in self-responsibility. I am one of those people that says you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. If you just complain about what cards you are dealt in life, then that is where you will stay, in a negative place. I also am a huge believer in Plan B. Workforce training is all about Plan B. It is something you can do if your other plans fall apart or if a job is lost, it is something you can fall back on. I am also a big believer in every experience opens doors. You don’t know who you will meet while you are “training.” You might be “training” for the biggest opportunity in your life. One door always leads to another, but someone has to walk the walk and do the work to get to the other side.

Tell me about your trip to Moscow with Harry and why you chose to go with him.

When I was asked [to go] by a Christian organization that wanted to help street kids in Moscow, Harry just popped in my head. He and I work well together, and he and I would also watch each others’ backs. I knew if something bad was going to happen when we went, then Harry and I would have to “throw down” as they say. There are two images I have of Harry that stick in my head from that trip. One was when I walked past his hotel room at night, he was on his knees by his bed praying. The Bosnian interpreter was so impressed with Harry that he also was on his knees. This dude was about 6’4″ and weighed like 300 lbs. Seeing those two grown men on their knees thanking God was overwhelming.

The other image was of Harry 12-stepping a heroin addict almost immediately off the plane. This guy approached Harry and started asking him to help him change his life. It was crazy. Ten minutes into the Moscow trip, Harry already had reached someone.

In what ways has the café changed your life?

I am blessed to have seen modern-day miracles. I have seen people who at one time would take everything from you, turn their lives around and in turn volunteer their own time to change others. There are no words in the human language to express the intense love that I have felt from all types of people. Serious, intense, earth-shaking love. Who would ever turn that down? It is ridiculous to try to put into words what is only felt in the heart.

The first miracle was when a man walked into the café and asked for me. He came up to me and pinned an Our Lady of Guadalupe on my chest. I asked him why he felt he needed to do that, and he said: “Our lady is the protector of unborn children.” A week later, I found out I was pregnant. I still have the pin and I never saw that man again.

During the week of Thanksgiving in our first year, we had so much food donated that it reached the ceiling. Other organizations were not doing so well so we, including café guests, went out and delivered food to agencies and to individual homes. We started in the morning and didn’t end until it was dark. I have to say that, at that moment, I couldn’t have predicted a better day. We called it “The Ditch” because we would doorbell ditch people with the gift of food. It was super fun, and I still do that to this day with all kinds of things.

Another favorite miracle was when we were so short of money we were talking of closing. I was at that board meeting and I turned to a minister who was on the board–”his name was Frank Lott–” and I asked him to pray with me. One week later, we got $20,000 of unsolicited funds. Some board members said that it was luck, but I knew better. It was God.

What do the tattooed symbols on your arm mean? Are they connected to your work?

I got them tattooed on my arm in November 2007. I had just started volunteering at the café again on a regular basis. I have always volunteered at the café but sometimes I get to do it for one month at a time. Anyway, I was watching a guest meeting. A staff member by the name of Israel Vargas was speaking to the guests. Israel was speaking about putting one foot in front of the other and just moving forward in your life step by step. I was watching the guests watch Israel and, for one moment, I felt time stop. My heart was burning up, and I knew I was witnessing something beautiful. I actually could feel hope in the room. I could touch it, I could smell it and I could taste it. It was a moment I never wanted to forget so I went to get a flaming heart put on my arm. I couldn’t find any flaming hearts that spoke to me so I thought about what I felt at that moment. I felt fire, heart, joy. So that is what I put on my arm in Chinese scripture. That day I made a promise to myself to always live with passion, open-heartedness, and full out joy.